Rubber Duck Moment

Okay, I admit it. My work-in-progress contains a rubber duck moment. Codename NRT, the novel has a very short timeframe. There is no chance to get to know the characters before they are plunged into the mystery on page 1. Thumbnails must suffice until enough pages have been peppered with hints and clues from their mode of dress, their speech, the background information they let free with and straight prose description. I’ve avoided ‘plot bricks’ as far as I can; those clumsy speeches where someone says ‘But Sally, you are my sister!’

Key pieces of a character’s history should fall out in natural dialogue, challenge and argument.  We as readers are new acquaintances of these people, and within the story come the subtle enquiries new acquaintances make – are you married, do you have any children? If not asked directly people often go for the opening, ‘So you actually worked for NASA?’ This explains the character’s hint of a Transatlantic accent and allows a lead in to how she ended up in the USA and why she came back. We already know she’s scarily smart. Police procedurals are allowed to be more blunt: ‘Exactly what is your relationship to the deceased?’

 Drink is great. In their cups, people often spill their life story. Not always in a coherent fashion, not always honestly and rarely in chronological order but it tumbles out. ‘I was drinking this stuff when I met him in that night club.’

 A point came in NRT where there were still many unanswered questions about character A. She keeps her own council, we never meet her friends or her family or her workmates; all these are usual vehicles for allowing us to expand our understanding of the person underneath. We often see a character at work, we see the interaction with Mum/Sister/Boyfriend and they naturally ask about her day, or remind her of some upcoming appointment. Not so with A. So I needed a rubber duck moment to allow her to open up, drop enough facts about her past to allow us to piece together the last clues to her motivation.

 The classic scene has our grizzled hero explain that the reason he’s hard-bitten and avoids company is because his father threw away his rubber duck when he was six. He never trusted anyone else again, never wanted to be a father himself, never cared for family. Movies often use this vehicle, some well, some clumsily. Unlike novels, a thriller only has moments to create thumbnail characters. Female thriller heroes/villains/femmes fatales often need such a moment to explain why their behaviour is abberant – an abusive relationship, a lost child, an ugly assault, bloody men obstructing their path to the top. By their nature males can often get away with violent, obsessive or antisocial behaviour without needing deep psychological analysis of how they got there.

 So two of my characters come together in bar, tired, jaded at the end of their tether. J is chatty, needing company. She gets very little out of A beyond single-line responses, but is enough for us to finally understand A’s life choices.

‘Do you want to call your people?’

‘I don’t have any people.’

‘Mum?’

‘Died having my sister.’

‘So you’ve a sister?’

‘She died too. It was very Victorian.’

Mother, sister and next her father are dealt with in a few words each. We already know why she quit NASA and are getting to understand how she came to work there in the first place. It is not purely a rubber duck moment though; by using the past, I lead into hints and undercurrents of what is to come. This woman has no family and no ties; but does she have a plan?

 

The Character Edit

Keen-eyed readers of my facebook page will have noticed the word count ticking upwards on my new thriller codenamed “NRT”. Draft 3 is only a few words short of the 80,000 mark and more or less done. I call Draft 3 “Animate”. By the end of Draft 2 I had a beginning, middle and an end. I had a full set of major characters, a fully functioning plot and a fair number of twists. Draft 3 is where I flesh it all out, developing the scenes, planting the clues and turning loose ends into blind alleys. The last remnants of Draft 1’s flow of consciousness have been tidied up and I’m working on the English, the grammar and the action sequences. There’s no point in writing a nail-biting chase scene in Draft 1 if your plot turns out not to need it.

Up to Draft 3 I stay excited, as my original ideas are changing and characters start to drive the story themselves. I know them by now, pretty certain how they will react to a crisis and what they will do next. Draft 4 signals the start of the polishing process, craft takes over from inspiration.

Draft 4 is the ‘Character Edit’, which aims to turn them from cyphers to people; someone you might have met at work, chatted to at a party or overheard on the train. Someone you will feel for when they bleed and miss (if) they die. I step back and decide how many key characters I have. ‘Glint’ had three viewpoint characters, and everyone else made up the supporting cast. George, Edith and Artie needed deep back stories and a definite arc, but everyone else was merely passing through and their details would be polished in the ‘Continuity Edit’.

NRT presents a different challenge. There are five main characters, but the timeframe of the story is the shortest I’ve ever attempted. This leaves relatively little space for developing the backstory without resorting to ‘rubber duck’ speeches (“the reason I hate men is because my Daddy threw away my rubber duck”). It also compresses that character arc. If there is no time to ‘develop’, can they at least ‘learn lessons fast’? There’s no mucking about. We meet H at the top of page 1 and by the end of the second paragraph we know her problem. J is introduced a paragraph later and we immediately learn who C and D are too. Four of five key players are on the pitch before the reader turns the first page.

Starting Thursday I’m going to read through NRT taking just the scenes of one character, as if this were a single viewpoint novel just about them. This way I achieve continuity of dialogue, action, emotions, motivation and indeed clothing. The character’s viewpoint must also be heard – it can’t all be about her, what about my problems? Imagine NRT is a film script, and woman A is being played by a major star. Her agent is standing next to me saying ‘Give her more lines. Give her that joke.’ Or indeed ‘She’s not taking her clothes off for no good reason.’ For the next two weeks I’ll be an advocate for each of my five leads. The word count may pump up a little more as I flesh them out, but that’s not the prime objective. Five strong but fallible people are ready to be launched into the mayhem I have prepared.

After that, it’s off to my editor for her initial thoughts. More drafts will surely follow.

 

True Crime

It’s conference season and I’m doing the rounds of crime and literary conventions. One aspect of crime writing conferences is that I get to meet, or at least to listen to, detectives and forensic investigators who have worked on actual cases. Although fascinating, there is a gruesome reality about them which can be hard to swallow.

In Edinburgh I was staying close to a pub called The World’s End, indeed walked past it a dozen times although never went in for a drink. In 1977 it was the setting for the ‘World’s End Murders’; the double killing didn’t actually take place at the pub, but that’s where two 17-year old girls were last seen alive. Their horrible deaths were not fully solved until 34 years later when forensic science had advanced sufficiently to pin the crime on two men (the instigator was already in prison for another sex killing and his wastrel sidekick was long dead). What made this case especially chilling was that I was 17 years old in 1977. The hairstyles and fashion of those two girls looked like those of my school friends when we made our first underage forays into the adult world on those Friday nights 40 years ago.

Walking past that pub and recalling that story made me reflect on the crime writer’s craft. We write about subjects too awful to contemplate in daily life, but people buy our books by the million. Crime fiction is rarely out of the Sunday Times top-ten list and usually steals several slots. So how can I write about painful death and wasted lives? My guilt falls away when I consider that the same is true of authors writing war stories, horror stories, spy thrillers, grim historical epics, apocalyptic novels and sword-swinging fantasy. None of these worlds are places we would want to find ourselves. Perhaps the only story we’d truly be comfortable inside is a light romance; preferably set somewhere warm and exotic, with a pleasing amount of cuddly sex and a whiff of adventure but no risk of actual harm.

We don’t want to inhabit those plots created by crime writers, but guided by the author we can dare to edge into them just for a while.

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 2)

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Having considered ‘Poor Decisions’ and the millennia-old revulsion against killing, let our thoughts turn to murder. The Sixth Commandment of God gave humanity an early steer that murder is a bad thing.

 

 

Centuries of religious and moral codes have been reinforced by laws and penalties, backed up by law enforcement agencies which threaten a killer with the likelihood of punishment for his crimes (let alone eternal damnation). Not only is it a bad thing, but also a really, really bad idea.

All this results, thankfully, in a tiny proportion of a ‘civilised’ population being prepared to kill, and an even smaller number prepared to do so ‘in cold blood’. The UK Murder rate is 0.9 per 100,000 people per annum, even gun-toting USA scores just 3.6 and the killing is concentrated in certain areas and certain population groups (i.e. poor young men from inner cities, and tragically infants under 1 year). The murder rate has to be very low for a well-ordered society to continue; beyond a tipping point it’s Gun Law, and every man for himself. Guatemala, which I discussed in a previous blog, has 10 times the murder rate of the USA and feels like a war zone. On my island of Guernsey there’s one every few years, generally a ‘domestic’ or the unintended consequence of a drunken fight.

Most murders are committed in hot blood; following an argument, an irrational impulse, or a sudden burst of fear. In many cases the killer is not thinking straight, acting under the effect of drink, drugs or mental impairment. I am annoyed by books and especially films that overlook the block constructed by thousands of years of human experience which shows that being willing to kill can act against self-preservation. This is especially the case where a second person in the plot is also a one-in-10,000 killer. In a recent English ‘cosy’ I read there were no fewer than three people in a small village willing to kill without remorse.

Even under stress, most ordinary people will struggle to fire that gun or plunge that knife in self-defence ­– one reason that the claim that ‘I have a gun at home to protect my family’ is bollocks.

American police shot and killed 963 people in 2016, which is just over 1 person per 1,000 law enforcement officers. So in a 25-year career roughly 1 cop in 40 will kill someone. That doesn’t make very exciting TV, does it? It pushes many cop shows into the realm of fantasy. Last week we had the highly visible shooting dead of a terrorist by British police – remarkable not only for the terrifying 80 seconds that preceded it but for its rarity.

So how do my fellow crime-writers climb this wall? Ordinary housewives and vicars are not easily turned into murderers and policemen do not happily pull their guns and start shooting. A switch must be pulled, that block must be broken down. Writers need to work to convince the reader this has happened. The reader of murder-mystery will expect at least one murder; it’s part of the contract. Belief is therefore suspended to the benefit of the writer; the reader cuts us a little slack. The 700-plus members of the UK’s Crime Writer’s Association probably ‘kill’ more people annually than do actual criminals, but to be fair, science fiction writers also defeat more alien invasions than actually occur. Amid all this fictional mayhem the trick is then to keep it real, keep that killer’s motivation believable. Murder must be the only option available to our criminal at the split second it takes place, assuming he or she is of sound mind and capable of taking rational decisions. It can’t just be there to fulfil that contract; we must be convinced that the killer will break the oldest taboo: ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Guernsey Literary Festival on Friday 12 May.

Alderney Literary Festival

Ald 5This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). Its cosy, its intimate and its focus is firmly on history: historical fiction, biography and non-fiction.

As the speaker’s room at the Island hall only accommodates an audience of 50, there were very few free seats and most talks were at capacity. Only two free seats in my talk (and I like to think the ticket holders had an extra hour in bed, as I was on at 9.30am).

A dozen authors mixed freely with the bibliophiles, another nice departure from the big conventions when the big names parachute in for a panel, and equally swiftly are swept away again by their minders. Work commitments meant I missed the Friday sessions, and I couldn’t get a ticket for Andrew Lownie’s talk on Guy Burgess, but the rest of the weekend passed in a whirl. Anna Mazzola talking about her debut early Victorian crime novel the Unseeing, Lloyd Shepherd finding monsters in Regency London  and Matthias Strohn on the Real German Army of the 1930’s.

Turney Scarrow Downie

On Saturday evening there was a dinner at the Georgian where some of us dared to wear Roman or Celtic garb to hear a good-natured debate on the impact of Rome on Britain – Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here. Romanists SJA Turney and Ruth Downie fought the corners for Rome and the Celts respectively, with Simon Scarrow umpiring. I  think the Britons won by a narrow margin of ‘thumbs up’, but I’m not precisely sure it mattered.

I was particularly interested in Simon Scarrow talking about Greece in WW2 and its aftermath, as this was the sub-plot of Byron’s Shadow and close to my heart (no pun intended – his book is called Hearts of Stone). Elizabeth Chadwick, Anna Mazzola and Imogen Robertson debated research for the Historical novel, which struck many true cords. Agent Andrew Lownie and phenomenally successful e-book author Rachael Abbott also had an intriguing debate on new forms of publishing versus the traditional model.

Ald 4 (2).jpgThen of course there was Dr Monaghan, talking about Guernsey in the Great War and the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. This was a lot of fun in its own right, although always tricky when it comes to the questions. Next year’s Alderney Literary festival is 23-25 March, so put that date in your diary.

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 1)

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‘Artie, could you kill a German?’

‘Course, easy.’

‘No, but really kill him if he was standing just over there?…’

George challenges his brother as Glint of Light on Broken Glass enters the summer of 1917, with the Great War at its height and no sign of it ending. Artie’s reply is off-the-cuff, the stock response of a confident young man facing a dilemma he has only read about in history books.

Artie is wrong; it is not easy to kill. This is a relief to police chiefs but a problem for generals and those who like to play up the dark side of human nature. Although animal violence lurks within us, modern humans are raised to view it as ethically wrong. Killing raises an even higher order of revulsion, a sin in the eyes of all the world’s major religions.

Even before we became ‘civilised’ there was a great deal of self-interest in not killing another human. Watch animals fight over food, mates or territory. One gets the upper hand and the other quickly backs off. Neither can risk being injured, as it would then face the threat of disease, starvation or falling prey to higher predators. Species that battle to the death are therefore rare.

So it must have been with our primitive ancestors. An individual prepared to fight to the death will in due course meet an opponent who is strong enough or lucky enough to strike the fatal blow first. It is not a career path. My fencing instructor used to say that “50/50 is lousy odds when your life is at stake”. Historically we know of tribes fighting ritual wars that end with perhaps the first death, token injury or submission. Simply embarrassing the enemy by striking him could be enough to prove your valour, such as using the Native American ‘coup stick’.

It is ‘civilised’ humanity that invented total war, often directed by rulers who were not in physical danger themselves. The firearm adds further potential for the use of lethal force; it does not demand the all-out commitment of a sword fight, provided you shoot first and shoot well. In the face of lethal force, our primal instinct is to run, hide, take cover, plead or surrender. You’d need to be crazy to do otherwise.

Writers of historical fiction, and especially TV and movie adaptions should note that most conscript soldiers have a natural revulsion towards killing. It has to be trained out of them, just as the use of arms has to be trained into them. Research in WW2 found that less than 10% of US infantry who fought in the D-Day campaign actually fired their weapon, and a small proportion of these shot at anything in particular. Even in the deadly Great War, the fact that roughly 5% of British troops were killed suggests that, all other things being equal, 95% of German troops never killed anyone. This is accentuated further when one considers that most casualties were caused by artillery and machine guns. Most riflemen shoot wildly at distant or imagined targets, if they shoot at all.

Other research shows that military units of all kinds, from infantry platoons to fighter squadrons, contain a small number of effective killers. Everyone else is simply making up the numbers (and providing targets for the enemy’s killers). One reason professional armies such as NATO perform so well against otherwise well-armed and dangerous opposition is that these flaws are trained out of the troops. In the words of Lt Rasczak in Starship Troopers: “Everyone fights, nobody quits”.

I’ll leave the final thought to our brave lads, shooting into the smoke of the Battle of Cambrai:

Perhaps they killed hundreds ­– perhaps none at all.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Alderney Literary Festival on Saturday 25th March

#Alderneylit

A Sense of Place

In a recent debate on a writers’ forum the question was asked whether you had to actually have visited a place to use it as a setting for a novel. My answer to this is both yes and no.

YES if the place is well known, such as London, and many of your readers are expected to Glint Coverhave been there or read other books set there. I won’t say ‘seen movies set there’ as TV and film often use places far removed from the location of the plot to double as the setting. They will also play fast and loose with geography to fit the pace (car chases often do this if you watch too closely).

It is very important if the setting is almost a character in itself, such as Cephalonia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Intimate knowledge becomes essential, which is why I worked so hard at getting the feel of Guernsey right in Glint of Light on Broken Glass. It is also why many ‘locals’ dislike books set in the islands by people who have been here only briefly, if ever; they miss the essence of the place. The Flint books were enhanced by my being very familiar with York, Kent, London and Hadrian’s Wall.

NO You can get away with glibly setting something ‘in London’ if you just mean tourist byrons-shadow-2016London or a non-specific suburb where detail on the ground is not important. I had Flint visit Glastonbury and Bath in Lady in the Lake, even though I’ve never made it to either. I also set much of the action for Byron’s Shadow in Nauplion, which I planned to visit before completing the book but only made the trip a decade later. I had been to many other places in Greece and researched carefully so ‘my’ Nauplion is not so different from the ‘real’ one I finally visited, although both exist in my mind. The Greek dig is an amalgam of my digging experience elsewhere on the continent – it was hot and tiring everywhere.

Of course none of your readers will have been to first century Rome, which is helpful to writers of historical fiction such as Lindsey Davis who haven’t been there either. A dedicated historical novelist can out-research most of the audience then only faces the challenge of making this long-lost world live and breathe. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers have even more freedom, but possibly even more challenge. Not only has the writer not been there, but the place does not exist – or at least not in the form portrayed. This is where a writer such as Tolkien needs skill to make us feel we are walking under the shadows of Mirkwood or struggling into the Misty Mountains. It helps if the writer uses familiar references, such as a hilltop castle, so the reader can start to imagine this made-up world. Writers of alt-history and steampunk novels invert this idea so that our familiar world is twisted into something that does not exist.

In the end it is that cliché ‘sense of place’. Without overdosing on adjective and purple prose, the writer must make the setting feel real. If the readers have never been to Samarkand, Deadwood or Westeros, they must end the book feeling as though they have.

Cover Shot

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a widely ignored cliché, as many book buyers do just that. In general the advice is (1) ensure the book looks like the kind of book it is supposed to be and (2) in the modern age make sure it works as a website thumbnail.

IMG_0072My publishers have over the years have for the most part consulted me on my covers, even if it was an ‘does this have your approval’ on a final choice. My first York pottery book was a heap of fun. We’d found several hundred pieces of unused glossy orange samian ware in a pile on the site, so I suggested we simply photograph a heap of pots.

I had three suggestions for the cover of Glint of Light on Broken Glass. The cover designer at Matador seized on one – an abandoned pair of spectacles on a beach. A stock photograph was found that adapted nicely as a cover, with a great use of fonts. But there was one problem; the glasses were clearly modern – 1960’s at the earliest. The glasses in question tumbled from George’s face in 1906 so would have been of the round, Edwardian style with wire frames.

It so happened that the Museum had a pair of replica Edwardian glasses in its ‘handling collection’ (objects that schoolchildren can touch without fear the object will be broken or lost forever). I was due to attend an overnight Archaeologists’ Christmas Party on Lihou Island, so took the glasses along.IMG_8413.JPG

IMG_8448It was mid afternoon, chilly, with the sun dodging in and out of cloud. I took 40 photographs of the glasses whilst there was still daylight. Guernsey sand is very yellow, so the gold-rimmed frames simply vanished against it. I left the beach and started to climb amongst the rocks. I photographed them sitting on rocks, trapped between rocks, lying in rock-pools, lying in little streamlets with water flowing over them.

When the sun came out, the water sparkled and so did the lenses. IMG_8465With some fiddling I could catch the bright clouds in one lens – the Glint in the Eye that George notices. No need for photoshopping or clever composure. Lihou’s rocks offered a variety of textures and colours, limpets and weed, shallow puddles, wet and dry patches.

 

IMG_8456After an hour I had enough shots – the sun was falling and it was time to return to the party. I sent a shortlisted selection to the designer and the final choice was to desaturate the colours. The image chosen has the glasses upside-down with the arms conspiring to form a heart. On cue the sun is reflecting in the right lens. Perfect.

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